Q&A with UTM Vice President and Principal Alexandra Gillespie

Thursday, August 20, 2020 - 1:04pm
Patricia Lonergan

On July 1, Alexandra Gillespie, chair of UTM’s Department of English & Drama, assumed the role of Vice President, University of Toronto, and Principal of University of Toronto Mississauga.

UTM News recently sat down virtually with Gillespie to talk about her priorities, leadership style and learn a bit more about the renowned humanities researcher who will be leading UTM over the next five years.

What do you enjoy most about being at UTM?

I love the community, the physical environment and the connections to Mississauga and western GTHA, which is such a vibrant and growing part of Canada.

If you could give advice to yourself when you were a university student, what would you like your past self to know?

It’s true what everyone tells you. Your time at university are some of the best years of your life because you’ll never again have this opportunity to make the growth of your mind, the growth of your intellectual interest, the growth of your skills as a thinker, your dominant focus. This is an extraordinary moment in your life, and you’ll look back on it and remember that feeling of exhilaration. Be proud of what you’re doing and what you’re achieving right now.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I spend my spare time taking photographs of insects, fungi and slime molds. Nature mesmerized me as a child and that never went away. I pivoted in my late teens toward the arts because I was equally mesmerized by the amazing things humans can create. What brought me back to crawling, growing, living things was having kids and remembering that joy. It’s a family hobby now.

What has your biggest life lesson been to date?

Becoming a parent for me was a key moment in learning that I couldn’t plan for everything, I couldn’t control everything. The best I could do was play the cards I was dealt the best I could. Learning to let go like that has made me a much happier, grounded human.

What is your favourite book or movie?

I guess it’s Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It’s a close call for Middlemarch (by George Elliot).

Where’s your favourite place in the world to visit?

New Zealand (home).

What is your secret to being productive?

Having a really amazing team of people around me. It’s the only thing that works for me.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership is not about me. It’s about seeing what other people need and trying to provide that. It’s about knowing what I need and trying to draw that from other people. Leadership is about community and about realizing the potential of a community.

What are some of the ways you’ll connect with the university community?

I am interested in exploring new ways to hold town halls because sometimes the format amplifies the same voices again and again. I am also going to hold a Principal’s check in, where I invite particular people to hear their views. I also want to make more use of social media, including video content.

The nature of work and the skills that future employers will be looking for has been disrupted by COVID-19. What is the role of post-secondary institutions in responding to these changes?

I think that COVID-19 has accelerated changes that were already underway. We were already seeing the shift to automation of tasks. It will also accelerate the extent to which people are expected to work in flexible ways. We have a responsibility to ensure our students are literate in these ways and are able to understand algorithmic reasoning and basic data analytics. We also have to realize there are things that humans do that cannot be automated. The pandemic highlighted how much humans operate socially and how much we need one another. We need to understand why that is, why that matters and develop students’ skills for communication and interpersonal relationships.

How can alumni support students and recent grads?

I think it’s important for alumni to understand, even if they graduated five years ago, the world that our graduating students are entering is incredibly different from the one they entered in terms of what’s happened to the economy in the last six months and the last few years. We need to harness what they bring and be aware that they may also need a leg up.

The call for dismantling systemic racism across all institutions both public and private has gained momentum over the last few months. What are some of your top priorities when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

To start it’s making sure we understand that diversity and inclusion are two different things, that we spend a lot of time thinking about diversity and not enough thinking about inclusion. What does it look like for our students, faculty and staff who come from different backgrounds to be successful? How do we make these environments where people can thrive? If I look at the top echelons and they’re all one colour or they’re all one gender, then I know we don’t have true excellence. My top priority is really straightforward. It’s to work relentlessly until there are changes. It’s easy to say those words. What does real change look like? It looks like bringing a lot of new people to the table and creating action plans and implementing those action plans.

What are your priorities for your term as Principal?

Excellence is my first priority. I want to take the extraordinary growth that was done by the leadership at UTM before me and propel UTM to a new space of excellence. Equity and diversity, research and teaching are all part of excellence. I want to step up our commitment to Canada’s Indigenous people and think about reconciliation, partnerships, listening, and our relationship with Indigenous people, especially those to whom we owe a special relationship here in Southern Ontario. The third piece is sustainability and biodiversity. We’re facing crises in the way we as humans live in the world. It is my priority that we, as an institution, are part of a global reorientation of that relationship and we continue to reorient that relationship in our immediate environment.

How can the UTM community support your vision for UTM?

Communicate with me. Tell me what I need to do and what they need. I want to hear about the ambitions of our students and all our staff, including our grounds people and custodial staff. I want to hear from academics and managers. I want to know how we can do better and how I can do better. The best way the community can support me to achieve this vision is to talk to me. I love to hear from people.

What message do you want to send out to the UTM community?

I’m aware that I’m starting this job at a very difficult juncture and I’m aware that it’s more difficult for some than others. The effects of the pandemic, global economic depression and racial injustice are obviously uneven. We will do best as a community if we come together, with that awareness, to confront the challenges that are in front of us. Those of us with privilege have a responsibility to try to lift those with less privilege in our community. That is how UTM will thrive.

Some answers have been edited for length.